Shenmue II

The original Shenmue, released for the Sega Dreamcast, was easily one of the most ambitious games of all time. Setting the record for the largest budget of any video game ever made, Shenmue set out to redefine how games were perceived, bringing forth a totally unseen experience, as gaming legend and Shenmue-creator Yu Suzuki would call it, the FREE genre. Providing an unheard-of level of detail in a video game, Shenmue created an experience unlike any other, where the gamer could truly be immersed in the atmosphere and world of the game.

Like any great work of art, the game may very well have been ahead of it's time, drawing some mixed reviews from the gaming press, many loving the game, yet many despising it. Regardless, the game became a big hit for Dreamcast (though compared to the massive budget, it didn't even come close to breaking even), and a large fanbase grew around the game. Towards the end of the Dreamcast's lifespan, Shenmue 2 was what many called the DC's final swan song. Microsoft recognized the potential of the game, and in an effort to bolster some exclusives for it's then forth-coming Xbox, snatched up the rights of the sequel on US shores just weeks before release, much to the disdain (and anger) of many fans. Now almost a year after the game was to be released on the Dreamcast, Shenmue 2 makes it debut on Microsoft's how does it fare?


Starting with the story, which is the primary focus of the Shenmue series, Shenmue 2 starts off as Ryo (the lead character) walks off of a large steam boat and steps foot in Hong Kong for the first time. Ryo's journey takes him to Hong Kong in search of the man who killed his father, Lan Di --the main protagonist in the series. From the minute you set foot in Hong Kong, you're thrown straight into Shenmue's detective-like game play, in which you take part throughout most of the game, asking around and uncovering each new clue in Ryo's path, meeting new friends and enemies, and further revealing the Shenmue's lush story.

This is where many people found fault in the original Shenmue; the pace of the game is just plain slow, that's all there is to it. So if you're an action-hungry gamer, you can just stop reading right here, Shenmue probably isn't your style of game. Now for people who just want to get engulfed in an engrossing --though certainly slow at times-- adventure; read on. Now what Shenmue 2 basically revolves around, is a grand game of hide and seek. During the game, Ryo records vital information in his notebook, and as you play, you basically have to use the clues to find out what to do or where to go next to further the story. For instance, you may be looking for a certain person or thing in the game, and when you ask a random passer-by, they'll tell you that you should go ask such and such person, directing you to the next event.

Another of the original's flaws was that many people had trouble remembering the names of the people and streets in the game, not only because there were so many, but because they were hard to pronounce, Japanese-enfluenced names. Shenmue 2 takes a lot of initiatives to remedy this, and it really does pay off. For example, instead of people throwing a laundry list of directions at you when you ask where something is, many people will actually guide you to the place you need to go now, or at least point in the direction. And as it seems, most of the important characters in the game have been given much easier and more recognizable names, save for a few. As small a deal as this sounds, anyone familiar with the original Shenmue can attest that this is really a life saver.

Now don't get the wrong idea of Shenmue 2, the game isn't just a linear story and nothing else, a huge factor of the game's appeal is just the sheer epic size and open-ended nature of the game. No, the game isn't Grand Theft Auto; you can't run around waxing people left and right, and you can't drive a car or beat up hookers, but what you can do is truly take in what the game has to offer in it's atmosphere. There's just a ton of things you can do that don't relate at all to the main quest, from a number of part-time jobs you can take up (which range from boring to really boring), to collecting a wide variety of Sega character-themed toys (like characters from Sonic games, Virtua Fighter, NiGHTS, Virtual On, and a slew of other characters), to even playing fully emulated arcade versions of classic AM2 games (like Hang-On and Space Harrier). The amount of time you can spend just enjoying yourself with side-games and taking in the scenery of the game is just mind boggling.

And then there is the other side of Shenmue; the action side. Based loosely on AM2's excellent Virtua Fighter franchise, Shenmue's fighting engine is quite robust for an adventure game. While there are problems with it --such as the not-so-friendly camera-- the game's fighting engine is generally very impressive, and throughout the game you will learn even more moves to add to your extensive repertoire, each of which grow in strength the more you practice with them. This just further adds to how much you can do in the game, because you can seriously spend hours upon hours in the game just training your moves and becoming more proficient with your strategies. Not to mention it's damned fun.

The other side of Shenmue's action is what Yu Suzuki calls 'quick time events.' Quick time events (or QTEs) are basically an excuse to let the game direct some really impressive and flashy action scenes and still let you have some minimal interaction. What happens in a QTE is, during a scripted action scene, you'll have to quickly press a button on the controller corresponding with the button that flashes across the screen. So for example, during an intricate fighting scene, Ryo may side step, then punch, then kick, then punch, and you'll see buttons flash across the screen for each of these moves, and as you press each one the scene will act itself out. If you take to long, Ryo will miss a move and likely be pummelled within an inch of his life, so don't mess up, for poor Ryo's sake.


Another big issue with Shenmue 2's port to Xbox has been it's graphics. Sadly, Shenmue 2 finds it's way to Xbox with minimal graphical upgrades, and while Shenmue 2 was largely considered the Dreamcast's most technically impressive game, it just doesn't hold up compared to many Xbox games today. That's not to say the game looks bad though, the game still looks wonderful, though it shows it's age rather lividly. The gigantic size of the game and attention to detail is easily the biggest show here, some of the environments, like the towering sky scrapers of Kowloon, are just unmatched in scope, even with the technology of today's systems.

The character models similarly pack some huge attention to detail (even to the point of many characters looking extremely ugly for the sake of detail), with easily visible wrinkles, fully modeled eyes and fingers, and individual clothes. What's so impressive about this is that there are just a countless range of characters, all unique and with their own paths and AI patterns to follow each day. Everywhere you go in the game is something different as well, very little in the game is recycled (a true feat considering the laziness of most developers on this issue), and there is an absolutely huge number of unique items in the game, many of which can be fully manipulated.

There are a lot of downsides to S2's graphical package though. Most notably are the game's textures, which while there are an ungodly amount of them --almost everything being textured individually-- most are very low-resolution, providing an often muddy and polygonal look to the environment. Some older effects that have become more complicated in recent games have shown their age in S2 as well, such as the relatively unimpressive water effects.


Then there's the sound issue. Probably the series' most widly criticized aspect is the voice acting, because frankly, the voice acting in the game (and every single conversation is voice acted mind you) is a bit... bizarre. Often conversations will consist of a mix of almost completely unrelated dialog, strangely put together to a very unnatural tone. But then again, many parts of the voice acting come across very well done (especially the last few hours, which contain some of the single best character development I've ever seen in a game). It really comes down to personal taste (like anything of course); if you're expecting serious, Metal Gear-like voice work, you've come to the wrong place. But if you're not one to take the voicing too seriously, and just want to enjoy the game, you'll find the voice acting to be a quirky, often strange, yet absolutely vital piece of the experience (like me).

Taking a detour from the voice acting, the actual musical score in the game is simply outstanding. The Shenmue series packs some of the absolute best, and most atmospheric and beautiful music of any game in my entire gaming career. The scores embody such a soothing and relaxing quality and give off an aural feeling like no other, they just feel right. I top my hat off to AM2, for they have truly outdone themselves here.

Bottom Line:

When all is said and done, Shenmue 2 may not be for everyone, and it may not have the prettiest graphics ever, but Shenmue 2 is still an absolute masterpiece of a game. The feeling that comes with playing through this game, taking in all of the atmosphere and culture of Hong Kong, meeting all of the memorable characters and learning all of the intricacies the latest chapter in the saga are worth every penny. Buy it, love it.

-Andy Wilson